Sunday, December 14, 2008

Winter Crops

We spent the past week trying to complete our holiday shopping. We failed miserably! When I was young, I always liked to spend time at the mall. Now, I find it extremely tiring. I'd much rather spend time planning the urban farmstead.

We ordered a mushroom kit last week and are anxiously awaiting its arrival. We eat a lot of varieties of mushrooms in our house, but especially enjoy button mushrooms in just about everything. We didn't grow our own in 2008. Instead, we purchased them at the local farmers market. Purchased in large quantities, they were sliced and then frozen in bags. We are rapidly running out, so the idea of growing any variety of 'shroom when it is snowing outside is really appealing.

With about 6 inches of snow on the ground, the only other crop that we are still producing are sprouts. This week's seed is a mix of red beet, alfalfa, broccoli clover and radish. Our sprouter is a small, two-tray affair that was purchased from a mail order catalog a couple of years ago. We love to sprout seeds for fresh veggies when the garden isn't producing. They really spruce up salads and stir frys.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Ask And Ye Shall Receive...

I mentioned to a friend that we were planning to expand our vegetable gardens next year. I told her that I was going to try to get involved in some seed swaps to keep the costs down. She made me a proposition that I couldn't refuse:

She is the leader of a local non-profit youth group that I often volunteer with. They had received a seed donation and decided to share the seeds that they could not use with neighborhood gardeners. In all, I received about 30 packs of seeds. In exchange, I will allow the group to tour my gardens in the summer so that they can see some of the more unusual items, like amaranth and broom corn. Of course, both of those plants will produce copious amounts of feed for my chickens!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Chickens On The Cheap...

I am fairly frugal by nature. I caught a break a month or so ago and was able to purchase two wooden playhouse kits for only $80 each, which would make perfect chicken coops. Their purchase had been an investment in our future farm. We hadn’t planned to use them at our city property, but at least one would be put to good use on our urban farm.

City life can be treacherous for chickens. I always heard that everybody likes to eat chicken. However, everybody in that sentence should be changed to every species. That includes stray dogs, cats, raccoons, skunks, hawks, even peregrine falcons! We also have harsh winters that include blizzards and bone-numbing cold. In the northeast, storms can creep in with very little warning. It just made sense to create an indoor pen to protect our chickens. They would have opportunities to forage outside when we were home, but while at work it was important that they be safe.

We determined that the best place to do this was on the second floor of our carriage house. It was a rather large affair, roughly the size of a raised ranch house. We wouldn’t have more than 6 hens, but they would have about 700 square feet of living space. Once we partitioned off the chicken pen, there would be room for some storage and maybe some of our other farm ventures. Since the weather was so cold, it wasn’t feasible to start the construction work. But it did give us several months to start to collect construction materials from Craigslist, Freecycle and even the curb. I would also have the time to watch the sales at Tractor Supply and other places until we had everything that we needed to go forward in the Spring. Mission: 2 Mars urban farm was really starting to come together.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Managing Money

Money…money…money… It doesn't grow on trees and it truly was the root of most evil. It was certainly at the root of many of our problems. The stock market had taken a nosedive, which negatively affected our retirement savings. We were fortunate enough to have decent jobs during a time when so many people were unemployed and struggling to make ends meet. We also had two children in college. They had developed the unique ability to suction money out of our wallets as though they were vacuum cleaners.

The Mission: 2 Mars urban farm would need to be put together as frugally as possible. We didn’t really want to invest any more money into our current property when our dream was to move to a five acre farm. We set a goal of $1000 to get started. That’s right! $1000… Not much, but it would force us to think carefully before making any expenditures and seek out freebies when possible. The costs broke down as follows: Securing an area for chickens and/or quail would cost about $200. The gardens were allocated $300 because we would need to truck in additional soil and possibly build raised beds. The aquaculture of tilapia would require another $300 for the equipment, leaving a whopping $200 to pay for fish, birds, seeds, a few plants and the inevitable problems or miscalculations. Any additional money required would have to be raised by the farm itself through the sale of its products. For now, a hobby greenhouse was way out of our budget. Ideally, we would find ways to locate recycled materials to cut our costs down and find a way to add a greenhouse to extend our growing season in time for next winter.

Armed with an outline for both the urban farm layout and a plan for the finances to create it, the real work was to begin immediately. It might be winter, but there was a lot to be done right now.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thinking It Through...

We would need to plan carefully. Taking stock of our resources, we realized that we had a lot going for us. Our fully fenced yard was capable of keeping out stray dogs. We had a wonderful mix of sun and shade allowing us to grow most any crop effectively. The back portion of our property was shrouded by the foliage of several maple trees. Each autumn, our yard was filled with a prodigious amount of leaves for enriching the soil. Our Victorian home was equipped with a generous two story carriage house for storage and there was a separate fenced area that had previously been utilized as a dog run. We had been saving seeds for years and we already had an ample supply for several gardens. Of course as a seed junkie, I would be ordering more from my favorite organic seed catalogs.

On the down side, we also had groundhogs the size of Volkswagens, raccoons, skunks, the occasional stray dog, several stray cats and far too many crows and starlings.

We talked about what we wanted to have: chickens, tilapia, organic gardens, an orchard component, a greenhouse, mealworms, redworm composting, traditional composting, etc…It was important that we not only grow food to sustain ourselves, but to do so in a responsible manner. We wanted to replenish the earth so that it could continue to nourish our plants. We wanted to leave our little piece of the planet in better condition than when we first found it.

There were also local laws and ordinances to ponder. Hens were allowed in our area, but roosters were not. This put an end to any thoughts of breeding rare heritage breeds of chickens. Ducks were also out, but quail were a possibility. Gardening was allowed, but a structure like a shed or greenhouse would need to be smaller than 12 feet x 12 feet or a permit would be required.

We had to consider the amount of time that we were willing to commit to this endeavor and more importantly…How much money could we afford to spend?

Friday, November 28, 2008

Blast Off!

We've always been fans of science fiction books and movies.The idea for Mission: 2 Mars urban farmstead began with a single premise... a fictitious trip to another planet for scientific study. If humankind were to travel to Mars there would be many things that would be critical to survival. Strong shelter, capable of withstanding the forces of nature and sealed for energy efficiency would most certainly be a necessity.

The ability to replenish the food supply would be of great importance, too. A renewable source of power to propel devices and provide heat would be crucial to survival since Mars receives significantly less light than the planet Earth. Whatever vessel our fictitious space travelers pilot, they would essentially have to bring along everything that they would need, relying on little assistance from the dying red planet. Soil would need to be replenished in order to support the growth of crops for food. For city dwellers like us, this trip into self-sufficiency was just as foreign as a trip to Mars. We would become our own grocery store and our urban home would be the vehicle to help us to achieve our goals.

Most of our city friends probably think that we really are from Mars because we have ideas about how to green our lifestyle and want to do alot of things the old fashioned way. But it just seems that modern isn't really better if it means that you cannot function if the power goes out. It certainly isn't better when kids (and some adults) don't really know where their food comes from. It definitely isn't better when it creates conspicuous consumption with everyone thinking that they are somehow entitled to every gadget that is released on the market.

Our journey into homesteading was guided by many factors, the economy, the state of global affairs, tainted food recalls, the state of the ecology and abhorrent factory farm conditions. We are guided by our principles and led by a craving to be free of the materialism that is so pervasive in American society. Our story begins here:

We were ready to blast off!! Tired of the rat race of city living in the Northeast, we were completely engrossed in creating a plan to escape it. With the financial crisis and subsequent bailout of the banking and insurance industries, we found ourselves feeling really insecure about taking on another mortgage in a state with a warmer climate. With the high rate of foreclosures, soaring grocery prices at the supermarket, the increasing costs for fuel, high unemployment rates and two kids enrolled in college, my husband and I decided to try a different approach...If we couldn't find our own place in the sun, then maybe we could bloom where we were already planted.

Hmmm...It did seem a bit overwhelming. I mean, we had already worked out a plan for a mini-farm on five acres. We'd have chickens and ducks and maybe a greenhouse for hydroponics. We'd grow tilapia fish in tanks and we could live off of the bounty that we harvested from our land, rather than from the SuperWalmart. We'd reduce our carbon footprint where we could and invest in solar power on a small scale to supplement our need for electricity. The question was: How could we do this in the city on a 3/4 acre lot?